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Stay-at-home school's steep learning curve

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Schools might be shuttered due to this new coronavirus pandemic, but that hasn't stopped Clarksburg Elementary School teacher Mary Quinto from meeting with her students.

While waiting for state guidance for remote learning, which rolled out Thursday, Quinto had been holding routine online sessions with her students and her colleagues for a couple of weeks earlier.

The town of Clarksburg shut down all municipal buildings March 8, after a resident was reported to have contracted COVID-19. Since then, Gov. Charlie Baker has shuttered schools statewide until at least May 4.

"My first priority was just to see the kids and make them my priority," Quinto said.

At Clarksburg Elementary, and across the Berkshires and beyond, educators are busy drafting guidelines and sharing tutorials for students and families about how to use remote learning tools to better help them prepare for doing actual work remotely during the virus outbreak.

At present, any activities conducted online are considered enrichment and are not graded, mostly due to the fact that the switch to remote learning and interactions has been so abrupt.

And there's a definite learning curve, as schools, from K-12 to college institutions, and their teachers, students and families, grapple with a wide gap in digital literacy and proficiency. In Massachusetts, the state digital literacy and computer science standards were only published in 2016.

For a smaller school like Clarksburg, it has been easier for teachers to mobilize and makes sure students had access to Chromebooks, by sanitizing them and organizing curbside pickup for them to be sent home.

But, larger districts, such as Pittsfield Public Schools, face a more daunting task.

With more than 5,200 students in pre-K-12, according to fall 2019 enrollment figures, and nearly 500 teachers, Pittsfield is the county's largest district.

"We've had massive challenges," said Superintendent Jason "Jake" McCandless.

Those challenges range from coordinating technology to meals for families to learning and processing unrelenting tidal waves of information, new policies and protocols coming from the state and federal levels in response to COVID-19.

McCandless said the district faces not only coordinating a large-scale laptop distribution for remote learning, but "a big expenditure on power cords," since most of the district's laptops and cords are outfitted for mobile carts that are shared by multiple classrooms. Then there is the question of, once students have devices, will they have an internet connection that can support the work they will have to do.

"A decent percentage of students don't have internet at home," McCandless said.

While most teachers and staff are trained to use digital systems for grading and sharing assignments outside the classroom, the superintendent said, "Most of us aren't really that well-trained to teach in an online environment."

New dynamics

In Clarksburg, Quinto, who typically teaches math to 40 fourth and fifth grade students, holds morning meetings and afternoon math sessions for students who choose to participate.

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And she has been scheduling regular remote meetings with her Clarksburg Elementary colleagues to do some professional development about how to use distance-learning tools and platforms, how to plan curriculum, and how to monitor students' development and progress remotely.

She also is adjusting to teaching class and helping her colleagues remotely.

"It's really pushed me out of my comfort zone as a leader," Quinto said of navigating these new dynamics in teaching and learning. "I'm usually a sit-back-and-listen type of colleague, so I think [getting out of my comfort zone is] a good thing."

She remembers those initial meetings with her colleagues.

"It's really funny. For me, it felt really awkward because I could see myself talking on the screen," she said. "Then I watched my students. They were pretty excited to see everybody."

She and her students have adapted new guidelines for online meeting etiquette: type "a" in the chat box to raise your hand; mute the device microphone while you're listening, but don't forget to unmute when you want to talk; have patience; not all internet connections are equal and not everyone has the same level of skill at using these tools.

Quinto recently led a remote professional development session about using an online platform called Loom.

During that session, Principal Tara Barnes thanked her faculty for being willing to be vulnerable throughout these remote learning growing pains.

And third grade teacher Kim Rougeau noted that there would be a learning curve as families adapt to online learning.

"Some kids are having easier times than their parents and family members," she said.

'Really inspired'

North Adams Public Schools Superintendent Barbara Malkas said she is "really inspired" by the diligence of her staff to provide digital leadership at this time.

She said leaders have been having regular remote staff meetings to develop a remote professional development plan to prepare teachers to teach online using multiple platforms. The challenges to this include adapting a universal plan to streamline the volume of platforms used, as there are countless tools available, and making sure kindergarten teachers are just as prepared for remote learning as high school teachers preparing students for Advance Placement exams, which now will be conducted online and at home.

Malkas says this scale of preparation has been "Challenging. Exhausting. Inspirational."

While some teachers are taking to these changes naturally, "for other teachers this is terrifying," she said. "That doesn't make them less-effective teachers. It just means they could be reliant on that face-to-face delivery method of instruction."

This pandemic, Malkas said, is "changing the foundational paradigm of how we're facing teaching and learning."

Jenn Smith can be reached at jsmith@berkshireeagle.com, at @JennSmith_Ink on Twitter and 413-496-6239.


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